The debate over what to do about the increased violence in the NFL reached a new pinnacle on Sunday.
After DeSean Jackson, Joshua Cribbs and Zach Follett suffered severe head injuries within hours of each other, many analysts resumed their calls for stiffer penalties on helmet-to-helmet hits.
The main course of action seems to be increasing the amount of the fines or to start handing out suspensions for particularly vicious hits. Here is the problem, it will make little to no difference.
From their days in Pop Warner, football players are taught to hit and hit hard. Defenders are taught to separate the receiver from the ball at all costs. Coaches are seen congratulating their players after hard hits at nearly every level of competitive football.
The goal of football is ultimately to win; fines and suspensions will not stop coaches or players from attempting to achieve that goal at any costs.
One interesting option I heard discussed was potentially expanding the dimensions of the field. NFL athletes today are bigger, faster and stronger than they have ever been, and spreading them out on a larger field would surely reduce the number of violent hits.
However, the NFL deeply values its history, tradition and integrity, so a change like this is highly unlikely.
Former NFL great and current ESPN analyst Mike Ditka offered up is own solution to the problem:
"I said a long time ago if you want to change the game take the mask off the helmet," Ditka said. "It will change the game a lot. If you want to change the game and get it back to where people aren't striking with the head and using the head as a weapon, take the mask off the helmet."
This also seems a highly unlikely option, but one that would reduce the number of head-to-head collisions more drastically than increased fines and suspensions.
“A lot of pretty boys aren’t going to stick their face in there (without masks)," Ditka continued. "If you’re going to take hitting out of football, you might as well just call it soccer. That’s what I believe. A lot of people will be disappointed I said that, but football is what it is. [Vince] Lombardi said it a long time ago. Football is not a contact game. Dancing is a contact game. Football is a collision sport.”
Ditka's last point brings this debate full circle: Do we really want the violence reduced in the NFL? From the movies we watch to the sports we follow, Americans are generally infatuated with violence.
Is it a coincidence that the popularity of the NFL has surged at the same time as the level of violence in the game?
A recent question posed to listeners of ESPN Radio asked whether they preferred to see their team score a touchdown or land a hard hit. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of landing that big, vicious blow.
I think that addresses the question.
While attempts should be made to improve player safety, drastic rules and regulations should not be implemented that would change the game we have grown to know and love.